Saginaw Bay and River Valley Region

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Once densely forested with stands of towering white pine and some hardwood, the Saginaw Bay and River Valley Region is immediately accessible to water transportation on the Great Lakes. The gently flowing Saginaw River, with its tributaries the Cass, Shiawassee, Tittabawassee, and other rivers, empties into the waters of Saginaw Bay, a thumblike projection of Lake Huron. These rivers were the transportation network that attracted traders, the first Euro-Americans to establish themselves in this region. Traveling up the St. Lawrence River and into the Great Lakes, they arrived in the early nineteenth century and built primitive log trading posts along the riverbanks. In 1816 Henry Bolieu, a French trapper, canoed from the headwaters of the Saginaw River down the Shiawassee River and built a log trading post at its intersection with the East Branch River near present-day Byron. That same year French Canadian fur trader Louis Campau built a two-story log building on the Saginaw River at what is now Saginaw, and in 1818, at the request of Michigan territorial governor Lewis Cass, he built a council house. In 1819, Jacob Smith (1780–1825) came from Quebec, French Canada, and erected at a ford on the Flint River, later known as the “Grand Traverse,” a log house that served as a trading post as well as his dwelling. It was the site of present-day Flint.

These early trading posts were also the sites of later settlement. Near Bolieu's trading post, Samuel Dexter founded Byron in the mid-1820s. Near Leon Tromble's trading post established c. 1792 at the mouth of the Saginaw River, Joseph Tromble (1809–1882), an employee of the American Fur Company, and his brother Mader bought land and built a two-story wood-frame house in 1835–1837 ( BY12) that became the site of Bay City. They speculated in land and built houses. In 1837 Benjamin O. and Alfred L. Williams erected a log trading post, also on the Shiawassee River, at the site of present-day Owosso.

Michigan territorial governor Lewis Cass and Ottawa and Chippewa leaders signed the Treaty of Saginaw in 1819. The treaty gave hunting rights to the Native Americans provided the lands were owned by the federal government. Yet the federal government feared that relations between the Euro- and Native Americans would remain unsettled and in 1822 built a military garrison on the west side of the river at Saginaw to protect settlers. In 1823 Fort Saginaw was ordered evacuated.

Within six years, in 1829, the federal government began work on a military road from Detroit through Pontiac to Saginaw. At the wooden bridge at the Grand Traverse across the Flint River, John and Polly Todd opened an inn by 1833, forming the nucleus for a settlement that later became Flint. Settlement was often aided and advanced when easterners speculated in townsites and even platted towns. In the late 1830s Andrew Mack established the Shiawassee County Seat Company and platted the town of Corunna; Norman Little of New York platted an extensive town that became Saginaw; and Albert Miller platted Portsmouth, now a part of Bay City, and established a steam sawmill operation. Plank roads, railroads, and the dredging of rivers into navigable waterways further encouraged growth and settlement.

The counties of the Saginaw Bay and River Valley Region were set off in the 1820s and 1830s. In the 1830s three were organized: Saginaw County in 1835, Genesee County in 1836, and Shiawassee in 1837. Midland County was organized in 1850 and Bay County in 1857. With county organization came the construction of the region's county courthouses. Genesee County, for example, erected in Flint in the late 1830s a building of oak logs to serve as a courthouse and jail. In 1851 it was replaced by a fireproof brick structure (demolished) by Pierce F. Cleveland and David Schram on the courthouse square. The grand, now demolished, High Victorian Saginaw County Courthouse (1884–1885) represented the high level of architectural achievement during the lumbering era.

The Saginaw Bay and River Valley Region was the first region in Michigan to experience large-scale lumbering. Pine from the dense forests was easily transported down the Saginaw River and its tributaries to mills on the river and on to Saginaw Bay and Lake Huron. Lumber supplied much more than a local market; it was shipped down the lakes to Detroit, Toledo, Cleveland, and Buffalo. Lumbering in the region began soon after timber cruisers and lookers searched the Saginaw Valley and acquired land in the 1830s and 1840s. Sawmills were operating on the Thread River south of Flint in the 1830s. By 1854 nearly thirty sawmills operated on the Saginaw River and its tributaries. By 1872 thirty-six mills, some of them the largest in the country, operated between Portsmouth (now Bay City) and the mouth of the river. In the 1870s and 1880s, logging companies cleared the pine forests of the Saginaw Valley and by 1880 there were thirty-two sawmills on the Saginaw River near Bay City.

The considerable number of surviving wood and masonry houses built with profits from the lumbering industry in Saginaw and Bay City are reminders of the lumbering era. And many prosperous lumbermen are remembered in their public architectural legacies. Jesse Hoyt and Henry W. Sage left funds for libraries in Saginaw ( SA5) and Bay City ( BY11), respectively. Ezra Rust provided Saginaw with a beautifully landscaped park that stretches for more than a mile along the Saginaw River.

The phenomenal scope of the lumbering industry inevitably generated industries related to wood. Shipbuilding began in the 1850s, and the wagon and carriage industry, promoted, in part, by the region's farming, also used wood. Ready-cut and portable houses were manufactured at the Aladdin plant in Bay City and at the Mershon and Morley factory in Saginaw. A byproduct of the lumbering industry was salt production. Wood scraps from the mills were burned to evaporate the water from brine that was pumped from subterranean aquifers. In the 1890s Herbert H. Dow extracted bromine and other products in Midland and, in 1897, founded Dow Chemical Company.

As the supply of lumber was exhausted, agriculture replaced it. German farmers experimented with sugar beet production in 1895 in Frankenlust and Monitor townships. Here remain their polychrome yellow and red brick farmhouses and the Gothic Revival Trinity Lutheran Church ( BY13). Sugar refineries were constructed in the area around Bay City and Saginaw, and the Michigan Sugar Company built a beet sugar factory at Essexville in 1898. Beans also were cultivated, and numerous grain elevators rise beside the railroad tracks in the communities of the region.

The urbanization and industrialization of the region was centered in the tri-cities area of Saginaw, Bay City, and Midland, and in Flint. Their importance is recognized in monumental post offices and federal buildings, city halls, waterworks, schools, libraries, and churches, as well as in their houses. Midland is famous for its twentieth-century residences and churches designed by Alden B. Dow. Located on the Flint River, Flint became the center of carriage manufacturing ( GS7). The great success of that industry was a logical precursor of the factories that produced Buicks and Chevrolet trucks for General Motors. Substantial neighborhoods of workers' housing are evidence of the character of the city, though many are now abandoned, affected by the decline of the auto industry.

Writing Credits

Kathryn Bishop Eckert

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